Great Songs Part II – The Witch’s Promise by Jethro Tull

Click on READ MORE at the end of this post before playing the track, or else it’ll stop when you click to read more.

Ok, so I lied at the end of my last post – this isn’t Toto’s Africa. I’ve had no internet access for the past few days and since I didn’t have Africa on my computer, I had to go for something I did have. Next time it’ll be Africa – I promise!

I first heard this song at university when a friend leant me a Jethro Tull cd. I’d never really heard them before, but this song convinced me of their genius. I am by no means an authority on all their music, but I love this song (along with The Whistler and Heavy Horses). I also love the way they manage to combine folk, jazz, classical, funk and rock – not something I’d think was possible. The Witch’s Promise is something else, though, and the more I listen to it, the more I hear in it.

The song was first released in 1970 and made it into the top 5; a fact I find very cheering. So, onto why I think this song deserves to me in my list of all time greats…

Instruments

Even though the instruments are all modern, the song still manages to sound both folky and old – despite the funky bass, drum kit, piano and synth strings. No mean feat. The harmonies (which I’ll come onto later) are not so modern, and the writing it strong enough to drag all the instruments into the genre. There aren’t actually as many instruments in this track as I thought there were going to be; only:

guitar, piano, flutes, synth strings, bass guitar & drum kit.

The bass is incredibly funky! I’d not specifically noticed it until I started listening with headphones, and now it’s one of my favourite elements of the song. It’s the kind of cool bass line that makes you want to take up the instrument (esp from 02’32 onwards…)

The piano doubles guitar quite a lot, which isn’t that surprising since Anderson played them both.

The strings aren’t overdone, which is nice, and for synth strings they’re not too bad. They play a significant part in the second half of the instrumental section that starts at 01’45 and continue into the next vocal section (often only in two parts, playing in 3rds or 5ths) but aren’t overused when we go back to the big final verse. They throw everything at this verse, but the strings only ever come in on the last, long drawn out words of each line, then drop out again. Inspired. I’m also a sucker for cutting all the backing (02’29) to leave the vocals a capella – then it really packs a punch when the instruments all come back in.

This isn’t a million miles away from how Black Velvet by The Lilac Time is structured – starting out low key with only a few instruments, and ending up epic.

Key signature

Interestingly, it’s not in a definite major or minor. It’s in A, but the crucial note in the triad (C or C#) is left out, replaced with a B (technically called an A(sus2) chord). I think this contributes to 1. The fluid uncertainty of the song 2. The ‘old’ feeling harmonies, even with modern instruments (piano, flute, electric base, strings). There are very brief flashes of E minor (still with the bass note A underneath) which give a minor-ish feel without ever committing to it. It’s almost like a mode, really.

From the very start, the flute flutters avoid playing either C or C# – until the little motif at 00’13 where they play a C#. But! Then the vocals come in (“Lend me your ear while I call you a fooooooool”) – on fool, the chords go through C major, a  first inversion G major with a C on top rather than a B, then back to the main A. So we get a sustained C in the top of both the C chord and the G major (which shouldn’t have one) but it gets taken away whenever we return to that uncertain A. So the flute motif plants A major in our ears, whilst the chords going through the last word of each line make us lean towards A minor.

Stupidly, it took me ages to realise that Black Velvet starts with EXACTLY THE SAME chord type – an A flat (sus2)… I clearly have a thing for this chord. If anyone can point me in the direction of more songs that start with a sus2, I’d be very happy!

Ultimately, I think the interval of the 5th is the most important to them (the A and E together). It’s an interval that evokes images of times gone past and the Medieval period. You hear it in their other songs too. Avoiding a C or C# in the A avoids detracting from the 5th.

Lyrics & vocals

This song creates a very interesting musical setting of the words. The lyrics have a very clear rhythm to them if simply spoken aloud, but that rhythm is subverted by the elongation of the last words of each line into a run of 11 notes. It’s unexpected and very clever, in some ways echoing the fluttering flutes of the opening.

As to the meaning of the lyrics, they’re pretty obscure. It seems to me that the ‘you’ being addressed keeps changing. At first it’s the narrator telling his friend that he’s a fool. Later, I think the narrator’s addressing the witch directly (telling her to stop being greedy). I’m inclined to go for a rather literal interpretation but it’s anyone’s guess, really- which is part of its beauty.  I’d love to hear anyone else’s interpretation.

Anderson’s vocals are double tracked (something he did quite a bit and was pretty common in that era) and I like how that gives his voice a slightly otherworldly quality.

Time signature

The song is in 3/4  but the lengths of phrases within that are uneven, so it feels like the time signature is changing (although it never actually does, which surprised me).  For example, at 01’45 the phrases are in several sections of 3 bars then 4 bars, and this continues until the final verse starts.

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So, that’s why I think The Witch’s Promise is an awesome song. I’m happy for any excuse to listen to it, and as a result of this analysis I’m now able to play it on the guitar, which is more fun than I can express. Maybe there’ll be a Pocketwatch cover sometime in the future…

 

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One Response to Great Songs Part II – The Witch’s Promise by Jethro Tull

  1. Paul Jackson

    Only if youve had your heart broken, can you understand the writers sentiment and drive behind this outstanding classic. The same applies to Gold dust Woman sung by Stevie Nicks. Enjoyed the above appraisal by the way!

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